Calvin Coolidge, Our Kind of Guy

Article excerpt

Here's a trio to mull: history, imagery and a president. Not the incumbent president, but one who deserves better than the years and the professoriate have afforded him: Calvin Coolidge.

Oh, that president -- the dour, lackadaisical chap who provided material for derisive one-liners by the wits. (When told Coolidge was dead, Dorothy Parker famously responded, "How can they tell?" Heh, heh.)

In the ranking of American presidents with which the tenured faculty amuse themselves from time to time, the conservatism of the man from Plymouth Notch, Vt., assures that he won't even come within shouting distance of the "near greatness" category. Only Coolidge's predecessor, Warren Harding, is ranked lower.

Coolidge got an uptick during Ronald Reagan's administration, though few among the intellectuals took anything about Reagan seriously, so it was hardly noticed. A new biography, Coolidge, An American Enigma, by Robert Sobel, may not revive his reputation dramatically but it should diminish the derision that usually accompanies any reference to him.

"American intellectuals do not so much harbor a negative opinion of Calvin Coolidge as they trivialize him" Sobel writes of the 30th president. Indeed, the reflexively liberal suggest that his White House years (1923-29) must bear as much or more responsibility as Herbert Hoover for the Great Depression -- an economic and social hurricane that, in any event, cannot be atributed to either).

"Of those who occupied the White House in the twentieth century, Coolidge was the most Jeffersonian in philosophy and practice" the author contends, "extraordinary in his simplicity and notable in his complexity, which is to say, an unusual human being who merits serious consideration"

In contrast to the conventional image of him, Coolidge built a remarkably successful political career on a vigorous and solid philosophical base. He was a man of fidelity in his personal life and integrity in public life, a superb politician, broadly read and a deft writer. Coolidge also possessed a droll humor: Asked why a man who lived so privately attended Washington dinners so often, he replied, "Got to eat somewhere."

For those only casually interested in the past, Coolidge probably is most familiar from the dreadful photograph of him decked out in a feathered Indian headdress -- one of those poses that would make a saint look goofy. (Political imagery can be cruel: Recall poor Michael Dukakis, photographed and then endlessly caricatured during his 1984 presidential campaign sitting in an armored personnel carrier, wearing a tanker's helmet and looking as if he wondered where Mommy and Daddy had gone. …